The more moderate stance could also help Perry in a general election, with many Latinos disappointed in President Barack Obama's immigration policies, including failure to pass the DREAM Act and what advocates call an overzealous deportation policy. Republican strategists worry that the rest of the field's more hard-line stance could harm the party among Latino voters.
Dismissing the notion of a border fence as impractical, Perry emphasized his "boots on the ground" enforcement efforts, and the bipartisan support for his immigration policy, calling it a "state issue."
"If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they've been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," Perry said.
That contrasted sharply with his fellow Texan, Rep. Ron Paul, who won great applause by thundering, "No free education. No free subsidies, no citizenship."
Perry's camp pushed back on the "soft" charge, noting that Perry supported fencing in strategic areas, had devoted more than $400 million in law enforcement spending to the border since 2005, and signed a law blocking illegal immigrants from receiving driver's licenses.
Perry was equally undaunted another issue. After Rep. Michele Bachmann pivoted on a question about her claim that the HPV vaccine had caused mental retardation in a young girl to attack Perry's efforts to mandate it, the governor issued an impassioned defense that put a face on his policy.
"I got lobbied on this issue. I got lobbied by a 31-year-old young lady who had stage 4 cervical cancer," Perry said, saying he had already "readily admitted" the program should have included "an opt-in" clause.
"The fact is, I erred on the side of life and I will always err on the side of life," Perry said. The exchange points to central weaknesses for both candidates. Bachmann has developed a reputation for coughing up factually wrong statements in public, and much was made of her post-debate narrative of the young girl who developed mental retardation after the vaccine, a story Bachmann said the girl's mother had told her.
"I didn't make that claim nor do I make that statement. Immediately after a debate a mother came up to me and was visibly shaken and heart broken because of what her daughter had gone through. I only related what her story was," Bachmann said, shifting responsibility for the claim to the woman who had approached her.
Perry, on the other hand, has been parrying questions about both the big-government feel of a mandatory vaccine program for young girls and Bachmann's charges of crony capitalism because his former chief of staff, a longtime friend, had lobbied for drug company Merck.
From the early moments of the debate, Perry and Romney showed Republican presidential debate how their respective home states figure in the GOP primary. Perry played up his home state and its enviable job growth record in the midst of a recession. Romney, ex-governor of liberal bastion Massachusetts, is happy to downplay policies he pursued there -- such as health care form -- that are unlikely to be assets in a GOP nomination contest dominated by conservatives. Instead of looking back on his record, Romney was happy to play up his future vision for the national economy.